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Mumbai’s Aarey Colony gets one-fifth of its area marked as reserve forest

By Swapnil Rawal & Tanushree Venkatraman, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON SEP 03, 2020 12:31 AM IST

In a significant decision, the Maharashtra government on Wednesday declared around one-fifth of the 3,166-acre Aarey Milk Colony as a “reserve forest”. However, proposed infrastructure projects, including the Mumbai Metro car depot, in Aarey — one of the last remaining green spaces in Mumbai — are not in the 600 acres and therefore, will continue to be executed. Several activists and citizen groups had staged protests opposing construction of the car shed.

The state used sections under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which gives powers to the state, to notify 600 acres near the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) as a reserve forest. The decision was taken after a meeting chaired by chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. The state urban development department will invite suggestions and objections from people, giving them 45 days, following which it shall issue a notification in the official gazette.

State environment minister Aaditya Thackeray confirmed to HT that the Metro car shed will not be a part of this plan. He said that the 600 acres would only include open land in Aarey. He said: “[The] final survey will be undertaken soon. This [the plan] wouldn’t hold adivasi [tribal] lands and slums. [The] rehab plan is separate.”

“After hearing suggestions and objections, the area to be excluded from the forest will be decided. But, the rights of the tribal community and others concerned will be protected while declaring it as forest,” said Thackeray in a statement from the Chief Minister’s Office. The statement added, “Roads, slums, tribal hamlets and other government structures will be exempted.” The state forest department also plans the rehabilitation of tribals within the 600 acres in phase one of the plan.

A senior bureaucrat said, “The state will rehabilitate adivasis who have settled in the area now being made a reserve forest. The department will survey the total number of tribals and look for a suitable location for their rehabilitation.” The senior official added that there is also a plan to develop tourism on Aarey land, but that would be taken up after tribals are relocated. “A survey will be conducted of the remaining Aarey land for activities such as night safari or nature tourism,” he said requesting anonymity.

Aaditya Thackeray further said that chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and urban development minister Eknath Shinde had a separate meeting on the car shed. HT had reported that chief minister Thackeray had recently chaired a meeting with all state officials to look at possible options for the Metro-3 car shed. One of the options being considered, officials said, was a plot in Pahadi Goregaon. With no appropriate decision on the car shed yet, the 33.5-km Metro-3 corridor is facing massive delays.

Following the meeting, Aaditya Thackeray tweeted, “Forest& Environment Depts has decided to apply Section 4 of IFA to approximately 600 acres in Aarey land near SGNP. This implies that it will be declared a reserve forest after a hearing for suggestion/ objections. Approx 600 acres of open land being declared as forest while all rights of Adivasi communities will stand protected. Rehabilitation of slums within the area would be expedited. This wld be phase 1 for which the Forest Dept will move a proposal. Phase 2 survey for additional open/ forest land in Aarey, post Phase 1 will begin soon. This would help the State protect the flora & fauna existent in SGNP and Aarey, (sic).”

Meanwhile, forest minister Sanjay Rathod said there were plans to protect remaining areas of Aarey apart from the 600 acres too. “A detailed proposal had been submitted before chief minister Uddhav Thackeray last month, showing 600 acres to be declared as protected forests. Some additional areas have also been identified contiguous to SGNP and home to a large biodiversity that needs protection. The area identified falls outside the proposed development of the state. Once approved, a detailed mapping of the proposed zone will be done before proposing the draft notification,” he said.

Environmentalists welcomed the state’s decision. “This is a step in the right direction and we would like to see this protective cover extended across all of Aarey. The value of Mumbai’s natural heritage has been recognised. It comes as a breather for wildlife after a six-year-battle for this recognition,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti.

The Shiv Sena had backed environmentalists and locals who opposed the construction of a Metro car depot in Aarey Milk Colony and had rejected a proposal for the axing of over 2,000 trees for the car shed construction in the tree authority of the Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

The party in its manifesto ahead of the state elections in 2019 had promised to declare Aarey as ‘forest’ when they come to power. After coming to power, chief minister Thackeray had stayed work on Metro car depot construction and later appointed a panel to study if any alternative location is feasible for the car depot for the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz metro 3 corridor.

(with inputs from Badri Chatterjee)

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